Posted by: tootingtrumpet | December 27, 2017

Cricket 2017 – Three Favourite Moments

The three moments below are not necessarily the best in cricket this year past – for any England fan, even a list of one would include the extraordinary day at Lord’s when the home side won the World Cup on heartstopping circumstances – but these are my three favourite moments from the cricket I was privileged to see in 2017.

Matt Renshaw and David Warner walk to the crease in Dharamsala

Four day Tests? Day/Night Tests? Tests played at the convenience of boards more interested in plotting World Cup success? At 140 years of age, Test cricket should be treated with a little more respect, because when it’s good, it’s so very, very good indeed.

What a series we had enjoyed in India! On a turning wicket in Pune, young Matt Renshaw had dug in and made 68 at the top of the order in as old-fashioned a manner as one could imagine, before surprise selection, spinner Steve O’Keefe, ran through the Indian lower order after Mitchell Starc had sent back the prolific Che Pujara and the over-confident Virat Kohli. Cue Steven Smith’s masterful century and a second O’Keefe 6-35 to send the Australians one up and rock the Indians in their own backyard.

All bar the tyro opener, KL Rahul, were still shaking in Bangalore, where he was ninth out for 90, and was obliged to take guard in the second innings facing a deficit of 87 in a low scoring match, It was Pujara’s turn to guts it out this time and his 92 anchored the hosts’ innings, but a target of 188 looked gettable, if not quite a shoo-in. Though Ravindra Jadeja had recovered his familiar swagger with his six-fer in the first innings, it proved Ravichandran Ashwin’s turn to get on top and stay on top, as his six wickets got India home by 75.

After a high-scoring draw in Ranchi, the players headed for the Himalayas and the tension heightened. David Warner, to his credit, had worked out a method to score and registered his first fifty of the series and Steven Smith silenced any remaining doubters of his genius with a brilliant century under pressure. Without their injured captain, India were rocking, six down and still 79 in arrears, when Jadeja decided to twirl his moustache one more time and blast his way to the innings top score in two exhilarating hours of high wire cricket.

India’s lead was 32 halfway through the deciding Test, as Renshaw and Warner walked to the crease…

Moeen Ali takes a hat-trick

England’s all-rounder possesses a fragile beauty, not just in his high risk strokemaking that has much of everything that made David Gower so compelling (and infuriating) a figure at the crease, but also in his ripped but unpredictable, drifting, sidespun off breaks. Lithe of physique, the Brummie has a feline mien to his movements and something of a cat’s inscrutable face in repose. One might add the metaphor the fact that  his feast or famine approach with bat and ball, needs a full complement of nine lives to survive the rigours of Test cricket’s merciless examination.

Moeen is a serious man, his responsibilities as one of the most high profile Muslims in the country accepted with a quiet dignity. Of course, he shouldn’t have such “responsibilities” at all, but he is not a man to complain about anything, on or off the field, and consistently pulls off that most tricky of gigs – pride without arrogance – all day every day with admirable aplomb.

The mask slipped for a moment in The Oval’s 100th Test match, as England cruised to a win that would take the series to 2-1 with one to play. Having finished his previous over with the wickets of the centurion Dean Elgar and Kagiso Rabada, Moeen’s first ball of his 17th over struck Morne Morkel on the pad and 11 England players and 20,000 England fans appealed with full-throated confidence – but umpire, Joel Wilson, was unmoved. Upstairs it went, the ground buzzing with anticipation and then… The cricket photograph of the year was evidence enough of The Oval’s first Test hat-trick at the 100th time of asking.

Shai Hope confounds the doubters

A callow West Indies team had been blown away by a plainly superior England in the First Test (and would be again in the Third Test) but in-between, we witnessed a performance as great as it was unexpected. Shai Hope, hitherto styled “No Hope” by me and plenty like me, had previously given a glimpse or two of his potential, but looked ill-suited to the formidable demands of Test cricket, never mind its September-in-England version. But England had looked a little complacent in making 258 in the first innings at Headingley with only centurion Ben Stokes and Joe Root making more than 23.

That still looked like plenty enough when Hope walked past his brother Kyle on the boundary, dismissed with the board showing 35-3. But Kraigg Brathwaite was giving nothing away en route to 134 and Hope began to show why so many judges in the Caribbean rated him, with a magnificent 147.

Their 246 runs partnership did not just drag the Windies back into the match and series, it woke England up, and six half-centuries later, Moeen’s tattoo beaten out on the boundary boards, allowed Joe Root to declare 321 ahead with half an hour to play on Day Four.

I spent Day Five telling listeners to Guerilla Cricket that there was no way the visitors could do a Lord’s 1984 – sure the kid played well in the first innings, but he’s no Gordon Greenidge, even if Kraigg Brathwaite was doing a decent job of channeling Larry Gomes batting in a mirror.

Others thought otherwise – and so did Shai Hope himself, who, with an almost Zen-like calm, constructed his second century of the match, striking the winning runs to seal the win and complete one of the greatest individual Test batting performances of all time – 147 and 118* made in over 11 hours of relentless pressure with superhuman concentration. The moment of victory stands with any in his region’s glorious history and reminded us – as if we needed it – that the more one thinks about this wondrous game of ours, the less one knows.

 

 

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Posted by: tootingtrumpet | December 19, 2017

The Ten Ashes Commandments

You lost before Christmas again?

With apologies to Biggie Smalls and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

I been in this game for years, defeats are becoming annual
It’s rules to this shit, I wrote me a manual
A step by step booklet for you to get
your game on track, not your cap pushed back

Rule Nombre Uno

Send out the call, for bowlers fast and tall. Give ’em the ball and watch the wickets fall. Pick no- one small, cos they’re gonna get mauled.

Number Two

From 1 to 11, they’ll you hit between the eyes. Sure they’ll apologise, but they’re the same ruthless guys, as you find out as the next one fizzes by. Never show you’re yellow – they’ve learned from Jardine and the little fellow – so do not flinch nor ever give an inch

Number Three

It’s bounce not spin that’ll make you win, so twist with the wrist for the jumps the splice thumps or the inside edge that pops in the air, but make sure you’ve got a fielder right there.

Number Four

Attrition’s a fiction. You can’t bowl dry when the ball’s straight as a die, it’s just another pie, so go stump high and don’t worry ’bout the drive. You’ve gotta break down the door, hit the stumps hard more and more and more, and keep short leg and slips in or you’ll never be quids in.

Number Five

The loam at home is too slow and low, so comb the counties for the bounty of pitches fast and bouncy and award central contracts to ground staff who deliver the shiver of pace to the places where the batsmen quiver.

Number Six

Practise and practise your catches, they win the matches – in patches of play when it’s not going your way, they turn a day, keep opponents at bay, so for every mistake, you’ve get to make them pay.

Number Seven

Get your best players on the park, no matter what larks have led to flying sparks – or maybe they’re just a mark. If we don’t know if they’re guilty, write rules that show pity – don’t let them waste time in pyjamas playing with Kiwi farmers.

Number Eight

Use the red ball when the sun’s high in the sky. Early / late summer is a bummer for developing the skills that thrill when you go for the kill – so the schedule for the championship’s looking dumber and dumber.

Number Nine

The Kookaburra’s like no other with its stitching and its cover and if Aus won’t play ball with the Duke nor field proper warm-up XIs at all, a ball at home with a seam not proud, has gotta be found, else we’ll be back in the pound.

Number Ten

What’s our cricket’s purpose? An income surplus? World Cup glory? Well listen to our fury. We want to compete not get beat in the heat of Asia and Australia where we’re too often failures. Prioritise that prize or risk Test cricket’s demise – that ain’t no lies, so weak is the bond that ties the game to its fans of the future, the wound needs a new suture.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | November 28, 2017

From the email server of Joe Root

Boom!

Aussie Captain Smith’s got fans on the outer
Ninety-two thousand fans in Melbourne harbour

Ninety-two thousand fans in Melbourne harbour
(Ninety-two thousand fans in Melbourne harbour)
When they surround our guys!
(They surround our guys!)
When they surround our guys!

As a kid in South Yorkshire I wished for an Ashes
I knew I could bat lashes
I knew it was the only way to
Rise up!
If they tell my story
I am either gonna get out on the field in glory or
Rise up!
I will fight for this land
But there’s only one man
Who can give us a commanding lead so we can—
Rise up!
Understand? It’s the only way to
Rise up! Rise up!
Here he comes!
Here comes the !
Ladies and gentlemen!
Here comes the Ginger One!
The moment you’ve been waiting for!
Here comes the Ginger One!
The pride of Lumley Castle!
Here comes the Ginger One!
Stokes Benjamin!

We are outgunned (What?)
Outmanned (What?)
Outnumbered
Outplanned (Buck, buck, buck, buck, buck!)
We gotta make an all out stand
Ayo, I’m gonna need a right-hand man
Check it
Can I be real a second?
For just a millisecond?
Let down my guard and tell the people how I feel a second?
Now I’m the model of a modern all rounder
The middle order veteran whose journos are all
Lining up, to put me up on a pedestal
Writin’ letters to lawyers
Embellishin’ my batting and bowling
But the elephant is in the room
The truth is in ya face when ya hear the Warner and  Smith go…
Boom!
Any hope of success is fleeting
How can I keep leading when the people I’m
Leading keep retreating?
We put a stop to the bleeding as the English take a warm up match
Knight takes rook, but look

We are outgunned (What?)
Outmanned (What?)
Outnumbered
Outplanned (Buck, buck, buck, buck, buck!)
We gotta make an all out stand
Ayo, I’m gonna need a right-hand man (Buck, buck, buck, buck, buck!)
Incoming!

They’re battering down the spare bats to check the damages
Runs!
We gotta stop ’em and rob ’em of their advantages
Rah!
Let’s take a stand with the stamina God has granted us
Benjamin won’t abandon ship
Yo, let’s steal their kookaburras
Shh-boom! (Boom!)
Goes the bouncers, watch the blood and the shit spray and…
Boom!
Goes the bouncers, we’re abandonin’ Broad and JA and…
Boom!
There’s another stump and…
Boom!
We just lost the bunny tail and…
Boom!
We gotta run to Melbourne quick, we can’t afford another slip
Guns and horses giddyup
I decide to divvy up
My forces, they’re skittish as the Aussies cut the batting order up
This close to giving up, facing mad scrutiny
I scream in the face of this mass Barmy Army mutiny:
Are these the men with which I am to defend Ashes?
We net at midnight, Geelong in the distance
I cannot be everywhere at once, people
I’m in dire need of assistance…

Your excellency, sir!
Who are you?
Ian Bell, Sir?
Permission to state my case?
As you were
Sir
I was a batsman under General Straussy
Until he caught a bouncer on the lid in St John’s Wood
And well, in summary
I think that I could be of some assistance
I admire how you keep batting the Aussies
From a distance outside leg
Huh
I have some questions, a couple of suggestions on how to fight instead of fleeing Starc
Yes?
Well
Your excellency, you wanted to see me?
Benjamin, come in, have you met Bell?
Yes, sir
We keep meeting
As I was saying, sir, I look forward to seeing your strategy play out
Bell?
Sir?
Close the door on your way out

Have I done something wrong, sir?
On the contrary
I called you here because our odds are beyond scary
Your reputation precedes you, but I have to laugh
Sir?
Benjamin, how come no one can get you on their staff?
Sir!
Don’t get me wrong, you’re a young man of great renown
I know you stole Saffer confidence when we were still downtown
The IPL and the Big Bash League wanted to hire you…
To be their Number 6? I don’t think so
And why’re you upset?
I’m not
It’s alright, you had a fight, you’ve got a hunger
I was just like you when I was younger
Head full of fantasies of playin’ like a Botham?
Yes
Bowling is easy, young man
Batting is harder
Why are you telling me this?
I’m being honest
I’m working with a third of what the ECB has promised
We are a powder keg about to explode
I need someone like you to lighten the load. So?

I am not throwin’ away my bat!
I am not throwin’ away my bat!
Ayo, I’m just like my country
I’m young scrappy and hungry!
I am not throwing away my bat!

Ben
We are outgunned, outmanned!
You need all the help you can get
I have some friends. Moeen, Rocky
Mark Wood on his horse, okay, what else?
Outnumbered, outplanned!
We’ll need some spies on the inside
Some Aus men who might let some homework slide

(Boom!) I’ll write to Straussy and tell ’em we need supplies, you rally the guys {Whoa, whoa, whoa…}
Master the element of surprise
(Boom!) I’ll rise above my station, organize your attack options, ’til we rise to the occasion of my new nation. Sir! {Whoa, whoa, whoa…}

Here comes the Ginger One!
Rise up!
What?
Here comes the Ginger One!
Rise up!
What?
Here comes the Ginger One!
Rise up!
What?
Here comes the Ginger One!
What?
The new  right hand man!
Boom!

with apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | November 27, 2017

Steven Smith – the man who hides his genius in plain sight

Steven Smith’s head – solving Test cricket.

I was at Lord’s in 2010 to witness Steven Smith’s debut in Australia’s curio of a Test series against Pakistan hosted by MCC. If you had asked me then what I thought of the unheralded all-rounder, I’d have said, “Who? Oh him? Looks a bit like the young SK Warne with that blond hair and puppy fat, but his action is probably a bit too ropey to forge a career as a leg-spinner.” And, of course, I was 100% correct – and 100% wrong.

Smith showed his batting potential for the first time in 2013 with 92 in Chandigarh, an innings immediately overshadowed by Mitchell Starc’s 99 from Number 9 and then Shikhar Dhawan’s pyrotechnic 187 on debut. Even his maiden century was made in the wake of Shane Watson’s redemptive 176 at The Oval in a dead rubber with England already 3-0 up and holding the Urn. That was his 12th Test and the knock lifted his batting average to 34, complementing a bowling average of 49 – a bits and pieces merchant of the kind England’s fans had suffered enough of to recognise at a distance of 10,553 miles.

But Australia’s selectors saw him differently. By design or chance, Smith had become a “project player” like Stephen Waugh and Shane Watson before him, someone in whom the investment in development would only pay off in the long term. And hasn’t it? In 2014 he averaged 82, in 2015 74, in 2016 72 and in 2017 65; with power to add. His statistics show that he’s not so much vying with highly rated contemporaries, the soi disant Fab Four Virat Kohli, Joe Root and Kane Williamson, to be saluted as the best batsman in the world today, but with Herbert Sutcliffe, Kenny Barrington and Everton Weeks to be hailed as the second best batsman in history: Bradman’s heir not only as Australia’s captain.

How did he get here?

Amidst all the talk about his unorthodox technique, his candidacy for LBW and his favouring the onside, Smith has, as so many geniuses do, simplified his game to a few fundamentals that are then applied with an iron will.

No matter how much he moves about in the crease in order to work the ball into the gaps on the leg side, at the precise instant that the ball strikes the bat, his head is in line with it. The importance of the head’s positioning in promoting the balance required for any sport cannot be overstated and Smith gets it right, hour after hour after bloody hour. The contrast with Joe Root’s occasional propensity to fall across his front pad and be pinned LBW (as he was in the second innings in Brisbane) is marked – not least because against good bowlers, it’s a mistake top batsmen cannot afford to make, the kind that turns centuries into half-centuries.

Not only is the head in line with the ball, it is also still at the point of impact. Smith’s exaggerated excursions from off to leg as the bowler gathers for the delivery means that he is where he wants to be in plenty of time to ensure that his head is freeze framed at the crucial moment. It is this aspect to his play that suggests a certain ugliness because, particularly against spin, he can look a little jerky as he moves out of the calm centre of the tornado and gets on the move again to complete the shot (especially in the case pulling and cutting off the front foot). Smith will never flow through his strokes like Mark Waugh or David Gower to provoke the pundits purring, but if he has to settle for an average almost 20 runs higher than those two beauties, I reckon he’ll take it.

The final element discernible when observing Smith’s head is a product of the most unorthodox aspect of his batting – the fact that he seems to play a lot of “French cricket”, his legs together, face on to the bowler. That position allows both his eyes, dead level, to watch the ball all the way on to the bat, reversing the oft asserted proposition that cricket is a side-on game. I suggest that this two-eyed vision assists in fostering the preternatural hand-eye coordination that ensures not just that bat hits ball, but that the middle of the bat hits the middle of the ball with an uncanny frequency, even when it feels like it shouldn’t.

If it’s easy to see the outside of Smith’s head, it’s almost as easy to discover what’s going on inside it too.

Unchallenged as captain, even through runs of poor overseas results as a team and as settled at Number 4 as any batsman can be, Smith uses that security to play a patient game, immune to any criticism about scoring too slowly (or too quickly), protected by a carapace of achievement that brooks no quarrel. Unlike many batsmen these days, he appears to hold a picture of the field in his head (viz a cute leg glance for four at Brisbane the very next ball after Root had moved his leg slip to silly point) and he won’t be suckered into “taking the fielder on” with testosterone-fuelled hooks or slogs. That said, he also knows when to up the scoring rate as bowlers tire, when to launch a calculated attack to reduce an opposing captain’s options and he adopts that most Australian of attitudes to the fall of a wicket – seeing it as a chance to attack and wrest the initiative back in a matter of minutes. He may bat in a bubble, but he bats for his team.

England have to find a way to dismiss him (or, as in Brisbane, be condemned to work through the eight batsmen at the other end) and that looks tricky on good pitchess – well, it’s a big ask on a less than perfect wicket, as his brilliant 111 earlier this year at Pune showed. What do I think? I’d attack him early from a right arm round the wicket line (as Jimmy Anderson did at Adelaide), shortish under the left armpit with a leg slip, a man on the hook and a short leg, with a variation fullish outside off with three slips. But if it was guaranteed gamechanger, all captains would do it. And if Smith’s esoteric approach to batting was as straightforward as I’m making it sound, all batsmen would do it too.

Test match cricket isn’t an easy game to master and nobody does so for long – except the aforementioned sporting outlier of outliers, Don Bradman. But Steven Smith got as close as anyone to solving it across 512 minutes of unparalleled, undefeated batsmanship at the Gabba and, overnight at the WACA, he’s joining the dots on his way to another match-defining big one. It can’t last can it? But we said that in 2014 – and we’re still waiting.

 

 

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | November 19, 2017

Ashes Preview – KISS it!

Cummins, Starc, Hazelwood and Lyon

It’s often said that success in sport, as in life, is sealed with a KISS. So, with the weight of history bearing down upon you, the heat from the sun, the opposition and the fans and Patrick Cummins at the top of his run, how do you Keep It Simple Stupid?

Here’s three thoughts for England’s likely XI to carry into Brisbane’s cauldron.

Alastair Cook 

You’ve done this before – you know it and they know it.

All you need to think about is batting – after all that stuff last time round, it’s that straightforward.

Just because they’re blocking your scoring areas, doesn’t mean that you should force the issue elsewhere.

Mark Stoneman

It’s that same ball that coming from the same place travelling the same distance it did when you scored all those runs in the last couple of weeks.

It’s your game once you’ve got to 20 – doesn’t matter what the scoreboard says, so fight to get to 20 by any means possible and then cash in.

Wear some virtual headphones – it’s not like you’ll be missing out on any great wit from Warner and co.

James Vince

Your chance to show what you can do.

Your captain and selectors believe in you – so you must too.

Keep your weight moving forward into the shot and the hands high – it’s four through the covers whether the ball goes along the ground or in the air.

Joe Root

They fear you more than you fear them.

Five days is a long time and runs on the board really matter – 500 is a good score, but 600 is better.

There’ll be times to defend in the field, but when you want to attack, attack hard.

Dawid Malan

This is why you picked up a bat as a kid – it’s your time.

The next ball is the only one that matters.

Stand up straight and get on top of the bounce.

Jonny Bairstow

Don’t let the adrenaline get to your bottom hand – play straight, even if there’s no swing and little seam to worry about.

Gloves low until the last moment and every ball Moeen bowls is beating the bat – until it doesn’t.

Reviews will be critical and you’re a key decision-maker – get them right.

Moeen Ali

You should beat your opposite number’s runs – so make sure that you do.

Warner and Smith will come hard at you, so block off easy boundary options and attack both sides of the bat with close fielders whenever you can.

Bounce is your friend, so rip as many deliveries as you can.

Chris Woakes

You’re an all-rounder, so bat like one.

Rhythm produces pace and keeps fatigue at bay – don’t let Warner and Smith ruin it by reacting to them moving about in the crease.

Even if you’re 0-70, bowl to a plan, don’t just put it there.

Craig Overton

Keep the wrist behind the ball and hit the deck hard.

Work on each batsman as captain and coaches say, no matter what is coming from the other end.

It’s hard because it’s supposed to be hard – otherwise anyone could do it.

Stuart Broad

Embrace the crowd’s hostility – it’s coming anyway, so why not?

Find the “McGrath Length” for the pitch and stick to it – they miss, you hit the off-bail.

When they bowl bouncers at you, they’re actually free hits, but don’t pick out a fielder.

Jimmy Anderson

Pitch the new ball up, even if it’s getting hit.

Bowl, deliver as the best fielder in the side and talk tactics as vice-captain – there won’t be much energy left for sledging.

You know a lot more about this game than anyone at the other end and a lot, lot more than most of them.

 

 

 

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | November 16, 2017

Ashes Preview – Leading figures from the Arts have their say

No faith in Jimmy nor Woakesy

“Whose batting will make the difference in the series? Whose captaincy will give their side an advantage? Whose media skills will work best? Whose relationship with the coach will prove most effective? Root’s Root’s Root’s Root’s” 

Ted Hughes

Ensuring pitches are well prepared and that hold-ups in play are minimised, will be important in protecting the credibility of Test Cricket. So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow filled with rain water beside the super-sopper.

William Carlos Williams

Toby Roland-Jones, Toby Roland-Jones, furnish’d and burnish’d by St John’s Wood sun, what strenuous spells you bowled after tea, but you’re out of the Ashes,- oh woe is me!

John Betjeman

How does a right bastard, ginger, son of a Kiwi and a Brit, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in Bristol by Stella Artois and anger, miss out on a chance to be a hero and a roo-basher?

Lin Manuel-Miranda

To bat, or not to bat: that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler at the crease to suffer the slings and arrows of Cummins and Starc on the body and shoulder arms against the wider ones, and by tiring them, end the day 175-3 off 90 overs?

Hamlet

A Swann, a Swann – my kingdom for a Swann (2010-11 version, duh, obvs).

Richard III

For a long time, I shall be going to bed late.

Marcel Proust

Experience is simply the name Geoffrey gives his successes.

Oscar Wilde

Friends, Aussies, Countrymen – lend Kim Hughes your tears.

Mark Antony

Hope is the thing of leather that perches in the hand and reaches the bat without movement and never swings at all.

Emily Dickinson

I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills, when all at once I saw a crowd, a host of gold and green bogans boozing.

William Wordsworth

Storm’d at with ball and bat, badly they played and then into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of Hell, strode the 18 picked last time we were there.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Dear Mr Renshaw. If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of expletives, yours is The Urn and everything that’s in it, and – which is more – you’ll be an Aussie my son!

Rudyard Kipling

England? They’ll howl

Allen Ginsberg

O Rooty! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done. The team has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won. At least I hope so. But I doubt it.

Walt Whitman

The fielders sledge with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still. And their tune is heard on the Sydney Hill. For the Aus team sings of freedom to say what we like mate, as long as it stays on the field  – or it’s Sarwan or Harbhajan saying it.

Maya Angelou

It’s just a jump to the left and then a step to the right. With their hands on the bat, they bring their knees in tight. But it’s the Stuart Broad flinch that really drives me insane. Let’s do the Lillee and Thomson Timewarp again!

Richard O’Brien

Hey now, hey now – don’t dream it’s over. Until the umpire calls it or Warner might run you out.

Neil Finn

Pace. Pace changes everything. And we haven’t got any.

Andrew Lloyd-Webber

Kevin Pietersen should replace Joe Root. My friend, Donald Trump, agrees.

Piers Morgan

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 30, 2017

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 30 September 2017

Ball One – Andrew Gale blasts Yorkshire, but Essex cruise home

At 80-5 having been invited to bat, Yorkshire’s bowlers must have felt that they had caught the champions on an off day at last. If so, it was not a feeling that lasted. By the midpoint of the match, Essex led by 250 with eight second innings wickets in hand and were en route to a tenth win (to go with four draws) in a season for the ages. They topped the table by 72 points, with the gap between second and the first relegation slot only 30. Yorkshire were dismissed for just 74 runs in their last innings of 2017 and senior players attracted some blunt words from coach Andrew Gale, who might want to look in the dressing room mirror too as he casts an eye over his underperforming charges.

Ball Two – Somerset’s Tom Abell rings time on Middlesex’s Division One status

The showdown in Somerset went the home side’s way as the 2016 champions were relegated in 2017. The writing was on the wall for Adam Voges’ men after Ravi Patel and Paul Stirling shared nine wickets as the home side cobbled together 236, with the top five all contributing at least 25, but nobody getting more than Ed Byrom’s 56. Jack Leach opened the bowling on a pitch that offered extravagant sideways movement sufficient to catch the attention of the ECB’s man, but not the up and down bounce that can lead to a points deduction. Leach delivered two fivefers to his young captain, Tom Abell, and, with James Hildreth making a century in the second dig, there was no way back for Middlesex, who go down by one point… or do they? An ECB hearing has been requested to review the decision to dock them two points for a slow over rate in the infamous “crossbow match” at The Oval, the early and unexpected abandonment thwarting Middlesex’s opportunity to rattle through some meaningless overs sufficiently swiftly to turn their over rate from red to green. This column believes they have a case to get their points back – or rather that they had one. The time to challenge the decision has probably gone.

Ball Three – Ice cool Gareth Berg steers Hampshire to safety

The jeopardy on the season’s last day was all at Edgbaston where Warwickshire, long gone, were seeking to win the match and relegate Hampshire (for the second year in succession in what would have been a quiz question double for years to come). Needing to bat out the day, Liam Dawson went into full Faf fashion, defending grimly to make nine in nearly two hours, but when he went and James Vince (30 in over two and a half hours) followed, the inexperienced Ian Holland was joined by the rather more seasoned Gareth Berg and the two all-rounders held on. Hampshire fans celebrated another year in the top flight secured, while Durham fans (and most neutrals I suspect) wore rueful smiles.

Ball Four – Liam Livingstone explores new territory with a career-best 6-52

Lancashire’s draw with Surrey at Old Trafford secured a fine second place for the Red Rose, taking them 13 points clear of their opponents for whom third can be considered a good, if not quite very good, finish. Whilst most of the attention (rightly) was centred on Kumar Sangakkara’s farewell first class match (undefeated in his final innings – natch), Liam Livingstone underlined his potential with 6-52 in Surrey’s second innings (four of whom were international players and another in the Ashes party). Livingstone finished the season with over 800 runs at 47.2 and, while his leg-breaks aren’t reliable enough to give him all-rounder status, they’re a handy second string, probably about as developed as Moeen Ali’s tweakers were at the same age. Perhaps Livingstone’s best quality is not revealed in the stats though – it’s that imperceptible and crucial ability to make something happen in a cricket match. Now who is the man who does that job for England?

CR7 – the humble one.

Ball Five – Chris Read writes his own script

You would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by Chris Read’s final match of a career lasting two decades, unfulfilled at international level, but wonderfully successful in the the domestic game. Things were not looking good when Sussex piled up 565, the last five wickets adding a soul-destroying, concentration-sapping 458 runs, the effect of which was to knock the top off the Nottinghamshire batting, suddenly 65-5 with the long expected promotion in danger of fizzling out. But, in his last visit to the crease, the captain played a captain’s innings to secure the points needed, the skipper going up with the ship. Credit too to Billy Root, whose maiden championship century repaid the faith shown in him by the county. 2017’s two trophies and second place in Division Two will always be on Read’s mantelpiece, but I suspect the respect, even love, shown to him by fellow players and fans of more than just his own county, will mean even more as the retirement years roll by.

Ball Six – A salute to The Guardian’s county cricket readers and contributors

Last week’s shout out was directed towards the fine writers who keep the county cricket flame alive – so this week’s goes to those who write below the line here and do so much to make the County Cricket Live blog such a big part of the summer. You are fine examples not only of the many erudite and polite voices that can be drowned out in the stream of bile that characterises too much social media, but also of the fans’ perception of and love for the greatest of games. The County Championship may not hold the place in British life that it once did when Compton and Edrich were brightening the bleak bomb sites on a country still on the ration, but it still matters to many decent, generous, civilised souls. When the grim reaper comes for me, I rather hope I’ll be at a cricket ground, glass in hand, praising a Number Eight batting on 35, while pointing out (a little too loudly) the absence of a leg slip for the off spinner – and amongst friends. But you knew that.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 29, 2017

Five County Cricketers of the Year – 2017

In what will become an annual award, 99.94 recognises five county cricketers of the year – in the style of a publication that has done something similar for 120 years longer.

Kumar Sangakkara (Surrey) – Thank you Sir.

It was said that Barry Richards, his career coinciding with South Africa’s isolation, became bored with batting that notch below international as it came so easily to him. Well, it can’t have come much more easily to the South African champion than it came to Kumar Sangakkara, an all-time great of the game, whose powers, at almost 40 and in his last season of first class cricket, seem not so much undiminished, as enhanced.

Playing home matches at The Oval, a ground steeped in history for a history-maker, the Lankan lefty cut and pulled if the ball was short, drove with elegance and timing if the ball was up and if it was on a length? Well he hit some of those to the fence too, because, well, because he could. You didn’t need to look to see if the shots were his or his partner’s – the ball made a special sound off his bat, more like the crack of a whip in the desert air than the sound of leather on willow on a dank Spring or Autumnal morning. I can’t recall seeing fielders applaud his strokes, but they must surely have had to exercise will to resist the urge.

That was just the aesthetics – the statistics are even more impressive. 1491 runs in Division One at 106.5, the leading scorer by 335; 8 centuries scored against all counties bar Hampshire; and 545 runs at 78 (strike rate 97) in 50 overs cricket and 120 runs at 30 (146) in T20 cricket. All accomplished with the minimum of fuss despite the cross-Atlantic commuting to the Caribbean Premier League (second highest runscorer there too, natch), his play failing to astound but one person – himself..

As some do when the end is in sight, Sangakkara seemed to value his gifts all the more and the stage he had been offered to display them. He said this about the county game –

“The county professional is a very, very special breed of person and I’ve found a completely new respect not just for county cricket but for the game as a whole. To understand that wherever there is first-class cricket, the pride with which they play this sport, the pride in which the club supports the players and the pride with which the fans come and embrace those players, it’s something that suddenly hit me and it hit me once I retired from international cricket. I regret that but I thank Surrey for allowing me to rediscover that immense love and passion that first-class cricket and cricketers have for this game, and what an amazing breeding ground it is for players.”

He has some T20 business to conclude and then… Well, who knows? But cricket can’t afford to lose a man of such gifts; neither can sport, perhaps not the world as a whole. And if King Kumar does bring his formidable presence to fields beyond mere sport, his Cowdrey Lecture of 2011 gives grounds to believe that he will go into bat for decency and dignity – and boy, does that side need help these days.

Alex Hales (Nottinghamshire) – Hales storms to success in white ball cricket

In the Royal London One Day Cup Final, Surrey had made 297-9, a highly competitive score on a pitch that turned enough to prompt England to start their Test summer with two spinners just a few days later. Surrey’s seamers got plenty of grip too and Nottinghamshire’s batsmen trooped in and out of the Long Room with a regularity that had Surrey supporters happy at Lord’s for once. But Alex Hales was playing a different game – 50 posted from 35 balls; 100 from 83 (with the scoreboard showing 133-4). Surrey knew they had to get him out; Notts knew they needed to find someone to prop up the other end. Chris Read (who else?) did the strike rotation and Hales biffed his way to 187 not out, the champagne and the most obvious Man of the Match Award since Viv Richards made two more at Old Trafford 33 years earlier.

Hales finished with 434 runs in the tournament at 72.3 (strike rate 105.9) but wasn’t satisfied with that – and nor were Notts. They won the Nat West T20 Blast too, Hales making 507 runs at an astonishing strike rate of 204.4. That figure is largely the result of hitting 98 boundaries, his stand up straight and hit anything wide, short or full very hard indeed putting him 12 ahead of James Vince, second amongst the T20 boundary boys.

He played only seven Championship matches in the promotion season, but Notts won five of those, showing how his red ball strike rate of over 80 from his new slot in the middle order could take the game away from tiring bowlers. Hales will play in Division One in 2018 and might have rather more time to expand his four day game than he expected.

Alex Davies pictured last week

Alex Davies (Lancashire) – The boy from Darwen has evolved into a key player for Lancashire

In 2016, Alex Davies’ expected breakthrough season was ruined by injury he played only five Championship matches and no white ball cricket at all. But the diminutive, all-action wicketkeeper-batsman has made up for it in 2017, packing what feels like two seasons worth of cricket into a single summer.

Often keeping for a day or more, he would switch pads and gloves and, ten minutes later, take guard against a paceman charging in with a hard new cherry in hand – an impressive feat physically and mentally and indicative of a superb attitude towards the team, particularly in a season in which he was rehabilitating himself back into top flight cricket and could, with justification, have gone in at seven, amongst Lancashire’s impressive all-rounders.

He started the season with a bang, making 140* against Essex in a draw, an innings and result that looks rather better in the rearview mirror than it did at the time. Later in April, he was a key figure in Lancashire’s first win of an unexpectedly successful season, making 130 in the second innings, as Lanky turned a deficit of 169 into a victory by 164 runs in a match that knocked some of the stuffing out of Somerset.

He finished the season with 916 Division One runs, topping his county’s charts and behind only six batsmen in the top flight. His keeping suffered not a jot under this workload, his tidy fleet-footed work bringing him 42 catches and 6 stumpings, third on the Division One list, despite not keeping in every game.

Of course, Lancashire have England’s Jos Buttler on the books, but he played only four Championship matches for the Red Rose and seems to be, by default or design, mutating into a one day specialist. That might suit Lancashire supporters just fine if it means more of the same from Davies, the local lad from Darwen, who might not have to work quite so hard in 2018 with Keaton Jennings’ arrival at Old Trafford. Not that he’ll complain if he does.

Jamie Porter (Essex) – Pacer carries plenty of threat with the new ball as domestic potential is realised

To win the County Championship, a team need to win cricket matches and to win cricket matches you need to take 20 wickets and to take twenty wickets you need pace to knock over the top order with the new ball and spin to frustrate and winkle out batsmen with the old ball. Essex had the best opening bowler and best spinner on the circuit – and their runaway success in Division One was due primarily to them.

Jamie Porter was good in Division Two last year, but few expected him to fill the boots of the retiring David Masters and Graham Napier, whose canny swing and seam had brought 103 wickets at 22.2 in the promotion season. But Porter was listening, watching and learning and his 2016 haul of 55 wickets at 29 backed up a good 2015 and demonstrated that (at 23) he had the body to stand up to the rigours of bowling through an English summer. That said, nobody expected him to come through so strongly as he did in 2017, a season in which he has risen to the challenge with vim and wit to take five fivefers and a season-leading 75 Division One wickets at 17.

As was said about Toby Roland-Jones and Chris Woakes, I suppose some might claim that Porter lacks that red zone pace that Test cricket can demand, but, like those two (and one might add Ryan Sidebottom and Graham Onions from recent years), Porter’s method of getting good batsmen out at less than searing pace may well work at the highest level, even in his mid to late 20s. He could hardly have made a more convincing case for international recognition than his extraordinary year as a lynchpin in Essex’s extraordinary year.

Simon Harmer (Essex) – County batsmen bruised by Harmer’s aggression and spin

South African cricket tends to produce slow bowlers rather than spin bowlers (think JP Duminy and Paul Harris), but Simon Harmer may be bucking the trend. With Keshav Maharaj showing potential that might keep him in the Test side for a decade or more, Harmer, despite some Test match success against India in 2015 on big turning wickets, signed for Essex as a Kolpak with expectations of success somewhat muted after a 2016 season in which no Essex spinner reached double figures in the wickets column.

Harmer had a steady start to the season, picking up wickets here and there, doing enough to stay in the side without suggesting that he was more than a journeyman overseas pro of the type that can give county cricket a bad name. That impression was demolished in a single match at Chelmsford in which he took 6-92 and 8-36 in direct competition with the (hitherto) best spinner in county cricket, Jeetan Patel, whose 4-138 represented his only chance to bowl on the same strip. That innings win sent Essex 14 points clear at the halfway mark of the season and people started to look back 25 years and speculate on whether it was time for Gooch and co to be joined on the Chelmsford Honours Board.

The Essex, and Harmer, talk became louder still just one week later when the 2016 champions, Middlesex, were swept aside by an innings in the day/nighter, Harmer bagging another 14 wickets haul (5-77 and 9-95). Since then, we’ve talked of little else at the top of the table and Harmer finished with a pennant and 72 scalps at 19, also chipping in with handy runs the way South African slow bowlers do.

At 28, Harmer has just entered the peak years of a spinner’s career, his action grooved, his variations under control, his confidence sky high – no wonder his one year deal has been extended to three already. He bowls and bats with an aggressive attitude and, with shades on, he even looks a bit like Graeme Swann, ripping it to get drift and revs. He might never take 28 wickets in 10 days cricket again, but he’ll take plenty in the seasons to come.

 

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 24, 2017

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 24 September 2017

Ball One – Essex march on

Whenever the scoreboard ticked over to 76, the late Brian Johnston would announce that it was “Trombone Time”, so how he would have enjoyed Essex’s win over Hampshire at the Ageas Bowl. The hosts’ Aussie captain, George Bailey, unpontingly enforced the follow-on after the wheels had finally come off in the champions-elects’ annus mirabilis, dismissed for 76 in their first dig. Cue 20 year-old Dan Lawrence’s century backed up by the old hands, James Foster and Neil Wagner, who posted 82 for the ninth wicket to set an awkward fourth day target of 185 for a suddenly nervy and much needed win. The victory fanfares were soon blaring again for Essex, as Sam Cook led the attack with 5-18 to despatch Hampshire for (you guessed it), 76 stretching Essex’s lead at the top of the table to 69 points. They’re just trolling their opponents now.

Ball Two – Rikki loses old numbers to post career best bowling

Hampshire had Surrey to thank for avoiding dropping into the second relegation place as Kumar Sangakkara did the Sangakkara thing, shooting an arrow into the heart of the Somerset bowlers after they had reduced the South Londoners to 169-4, still trailing by 100. Even the Lankan batsman can’t do it all on his own, so it was pleasing to see Surrey past and future chip in down the order, 19 years old Ollie Pope and 35 years old (until Friday) Rikki Clarke each posting round 50s. The lanky all-rounder is enjoying his work back the lee of the gasometers, his first innings 18-2-55-7 career-best figures – not bad for Tom Curran’s stand-in! Somerset have to win at home to Middlesex in the last match of the season to bridge the 16 points gap to their opponents, with Hampshire sandwiched in between. Keep calculators (and case precedent re “extraordinary declarations”) close to hand.

Ball Three – Finn in the swim at just the right time

Steven Finn stepped up to replace Toby Roland-Jones (you might want to CTRL-C  that for November – January) as Lancashire collapsed twice at Lord’s on a sporting but far from unplayable pitch, an example of the welcome change this year in the square at HQ. No visiting batsman scored a forty never mind a fifty, something achieved by both Ollie Rayner and T R-J through the simple virtues of watching the ball on to a vertical bat and hitting anything too full or too wide very hard indeed. Finn’s 8-79, his best since April 2010, got the home side over the line by 36 precious runs to set up the Somerset showdown in the slanting autumnal sunshine.

Ball Four – Steve Patterson proves a thorn in Bears’ side

He gets a game, he misses a game (as international calls and pitch conditions dictate) but he never gives less than 100% to the White Rose cause. Steve Patterson was in this week for a Yorkshire side grown used to fighting for the pennant rather than fighting relegation, but he remembers Division Two cricket and was in no mood to see more of it in 2018. After returning almost comically Pattersonesque figures with the ball (15-5-27-1 and 26-7-46-4), he rolled his sleeves up and went out to bat at Number Nine with 79 runs needed. He hit 44 of them himself, the gifted (and still a teenager) Matthew Fisher made 15 at the other end and a flurry of extras did the rest and Warwickshire lost again. This column is written in large part to recognise the likes of Patto and – hands across The Pennines – this Red Rose fan salutes you.

Ball Five – Nottinghamshire have their pants pulled down by Richard Levi and Rory Kleinveldt

No caption required

In my mind’s eye, Nottinghamshire were promoted about the same time Essex “won” Division One, but Northamptonshire have suddenly got a foot in the door and might yet deny them or Worcestershire a promotion slot this week. And where would be more appropriate for Rory Kleinveldt and Richard Levi to play than amongst the big boys? Kleinveldt (who is anything but klein) top scored in Northants’ first innings and then knocked over nine Notts batsmen (perhaps a certain affinity prevented him dismissing Samit Patel) before Richard Levi made light of Ben Duckett’s absence injured with a barnstorming 115, the highest individual score in the match by a margin of 62 runs. Kleinveldt chipped in with another four wickets in the second dig

as Chris Read’s valedictory dream season threatens to turn into a nightmare. Who cares about beep tests?

Ball Six – The County Championship is served very well by the few journalists left writing about it

There are not many places left to learn about the results in the County Championship (on Friday evening, BBC Radio Five Live’s sports bulletin gave us Castleford Tigers 16 Hull FC 48, Huddersfield Giants 12 Leeds Rhinos 36 and Everton Ladies 0 Liverpool Ladies 2, but nothing on cricket other than Toby Roland-Jones’ injury). So what a delight it has been this week (and all season) to read the beautifully crafted, old school match reports (if you can find them) on a cricket specialist website a click or two away from you right now. Backing up the wonderful work done through the day by the extraordinarily indefatiguable Will McPherson here at The Guardian, Tim Wigmore, Paul Edwards, David Hopps and Vithushan Ehantharajah (amongst others) transport us to the yawning green fields and big blue skies with their words day-in, day-out. Thank you gentlemen.

Posted by: tootingtrumpet | September 17, 2017

The Final Over of the Week in County Cricket – 17 September 2017

Naughty, Naughty…

Ball One – Essex win the Championship again – 25 years on

Just before the county championship was suspended in late June, Essex hammered the reigning champions by an innings, scoring 542-3d and then bowling Middlesex out for 246 and 262 – the game is easy if you pile up the runs and then take twenty wickets. 2017’s championship wasn’t quite a done deal (the lead was 29 points), but the other seven counties must have put on their garish gladrags and packed away the whites wondering whether it would be worth retrieving them when the hoopla was over. Turns out that it wasn’t really, as Essex picked up the red ball where they left it, cruising to the title with two matches (14% of the season) still to play. What had seemed highly unlikely six months ago has been inevitable for weeks now, but no less laudable for that. So the pennant will fly over Chelmsford for the first time since 1992 – Graham Gooch, Paul Pritchard, Mark Ilott and Peter Such and co emulated at last. “Es are good” as The Shamen’s Number One at that time (sort of) proclaimed and these 2017 E’s, from the county of John Constable and Reality TV stars, are good again in 2017.

Ball Two – Jamie Porter and Simon Harmer bring the pain to Warwickshire

The Essex boys got the job done with ruthless efficiency against forlorn, relegated Warwickshire at Edgbaston giving them a spare day to ice the champagne. After Jamie Porter and Simon Harmer had done their thing yet again, Varun Chopra punished his erstwhile employers with 98 at the top of the order, not leaving the crease until a first innings lead had been secured – Warwickshire were never coming back from that. It’s surprising to discover that Chopra, who seems to have been around forever, is still only 30, and in the prime of a batsman’s life – ask Ian Bell. He’s an example of the smart recruitment policy adopted by coach, ex-Yorkshire pacer Chris Silverwood, and Cricket Committee Chairman, ex-radio “personality”, Ronnie Irani. They picked out Simon Harmer as the spinner they needed in Division One and brought  in Mohammad Amir exactly when a touch of class was required. Even Neil Wagner, whose figures never reflect the impact his aggression has on a team, can be counted a success. Wealthier counties, like Warwickshire, must look on and wonder.

Ball Three – Jack Leach bleeds Lancashire dry of runs and gives Somerset hope

Lancashire, whose second place in the standings seemed about as unlikely as Essex’s first spot when members were grumbling in April about Ryan McLaren, Dane Vilas and Shiv Chanderpaul, lost a second match of the season, as Somerset continued to pull themselves up by the bootlaces with a win that pulled them level with Middlesex, the champions’ match at Uxbridge (Lord’s otherwise engaged) stymied by a wet outfield. 2016’s breakthrough star, Jack Leach, proved the matchwinner, his figures of 73.3-27-146-9 a testament to his concentration and effectiveness. After his difficult winter spent remodelling his action, Leach now has 42 wickets at 27, economy rate of 2.5, his partnership with the very promising Dom Bess (32 wickets at 21, economy rate 3.1) threatening to revive the days of Phil Edmonds and John Emburey, the left / right combination of spin twins giving no respite to batsmen.

Ball Four – Kumar Sangakkara shows no sign of slowing down

Just a point above last year’s champions sit 2015’s champs, Yorkshire, who ran into Kumar Sangakkara, back doing what he does for Surrey, his powers seemingly still growing just a fortnight shy of his retirement from First Class cricket. Some might say it’s not fair to dismiss England’s Mark Stoneman for 131, look up at a scoreboard that shows 233-2 and see the familiar elegant figure of the Lankan all-time great walking with that purposeful stride to the crease. He didn’t leave it until Surrey had posted over 500, his share 164, picking up where he left off before his T20 frolics in the Caribbean. So it’s props to Yorkshire for batting 122 overs in reply, tiring the bowlers sufficiently for a relatively comfortable fourth day as Shaun Marsh and Alex Lees batted out the draw with centuries, the fourth and fifth of the match on an Oval shirtfront, the follow-on an ask too far for the long-suffering home bowlers. More of that Yorkshire (and Australian) grit with the bat, allied to more penetration with the ball will be required against doomed Warwickshire and possibly be-flip-flopped Essex if Division One cricket is to be seen in the Broad Acres come 2018.

Ball Five – Pears to replace Bears in Division One?

With Nottinghamshire enjoying a week off, Worcestershire capitalised on their late burst of form (coinciding with the arrival of Ravichandran Ashwin) to go top of Division Two, albeit having played the extra match. Division Two needs a good advert or two and the Pears back-and-forth struggle with the Foxes provided that, particularly with free entry on Day Four (why not make that the case for all matches?) When Ed Barnard, one of Worcestershire’s fine young bowlers, saw off visiting skipper, Mark Cosgrove for 74, the scoreboard read 172-5, but canny old pro, Neil Dexter made a century and Leicestershire’s last three wickets added 119 runs to get them up above 400. Openers, Daryl Mitchell and Brett D’Oliveira put on a ton stand to secure a foothold for the hosts and the late order proved critical again, adding 113 for wickets eight, nine and ten as the lead was eked out to 89, despite Callum Parkinson’s 8-148. It looked plain sailing with Cosgrove’s men floundering on 59-5, but the tail rallied again and Worcestershire were set an awkward 132 to get – which they did, as Parkinson got the two wickets he needed for a consolation ten-fer. There are worse ways to spend four days than that – as long as you pack some warm clothes and and a hip flask, of course.

Ball Six – Hardus Viljoen has fun at the seaside with a career best 15 wickets

When an overseas pro is engaged by a county, members, fans and team-mates want them to win matches but accept that they can’t always do it off their own bat (or from their own end). They do expect them to put in though and the big South African quick, Hardus Viljoen, did exactly that for Derbyshire – and delivered the win – at Hove. 17.5-2-80-7 and 25-3-90-8 speak for themselves, a considerable feat of stamina for a man who can be described as a big unit. Sussex’s Jofra Archer was a victim of Viljoen’s pace twice in the match – but the highly regarded youngster should have learned much from the older man’s example.

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